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Fans of Prometheus Speaks may have had an opportunity to read my posts on Communism and on the Sigma Male. Both of them touched on the subject of hierarchies, with both Communists and Sigma Males taking a dim view of them, as many hierarchies are seen as unnecessary at the very least and terribly oppressive at the very worst. This post will take on the subject of hierarchy in a more detailed manner and will focus on two types of hierarchy – organizational and socioeconomic.

Understanding hierarchies is important because they determine the distribution of wealth, power, and status within a society, organization, or culture, as the case may be. Organizational hierarchies emerge or are put into place to govern entities and institutions such as businesses,
governmental agencies, or militaries. It is generally thought that such hierarchies are necessary for the orderly functioning of the entities governed by them and that, without them, the entity would be plagued by chaos and rendered unproductive.

Socioeconomic hierarchies classify people on the basis of their relative wealth and/or social status (in the U.S. these two usually go together). Thus, for example, such hierarchies may rank people as upper class, middle class, or lower class. Likewise, a social hierarchy might classify people’s status based on the relative prestige of the clubs they belong to or schools they attended. A high school student’s place in their school’s social hierarchy might be based on what sports teams they are on or how physically attractive they are, with popularity and the hottest dates accruing to those at the top of the pyramid. Caste systems, such as India’s, classify individuals based on their birth or race. Of course, the hierarchies mentioned above are just a few examples of human hierarchies.

Hierarchies can be good. They can enable organizations to run in a more orderly and efficient manner than they could without them, and most organizations would be unable to run at all without some hierarchy. But they can also become sclerotic and inefficient, which is why so
many organizations go through reorganizations from time to time and why, in part, the management consulting industry stays so profitable. Unfortunately, such undesirable structures too often become baked-in and hard to dislodge, as myopia prevents leadership from seeing that
there is a problem or those with an investment in the existing structure impede change in order to protect their status and privilege. Moreover, for those of us who identify first and foremost as humans (as opposed to other identities), any institution that exacerbates divisions and alienation within humanity (as many hierarchies do by their very nature) is very troubling indeed.

Most alarming, however, is when hierarchies are established to be, or become, oppressive and unfair, and some socioeconomic hierarchies unfortunately fall into that category. In this regard, those higher up in the order may use the status and power afforded them by the hierarchy
to oppress those lower down and prevent them from rising in the hierarchy. In such cases, the hierarchy becomes oppressive and cements in inequality and injustice.

A most extreme example of an oppressive hierarchy would be the Indian caste system mentioned above, which limits lower castes to certain low-status professions and educational opportunities and consigns many to inescapable poverty and social contempt. While the Indian
government has undertaken great effort to end the caste system, such institutions are difficult to dislodge. And one should note that India is not the only society with such a system, even if theirs is the most extensive and well-known caste system. (For a riveting analysis of the U.S.’s caste system, readers might wish to take a look at Caste, by Isabel Wilkerson.)

Although I may be in a minority about this, I do not think that one’s access to power and resources should depend on their place in a hierarchy that is based on unfair or illegitimate criteria, as many hierarchies are. While there are certainly cases of self-made individuals who
make their way up the ladder, those with status usually come from families with status and privilege. (Although one might think that status in a hierarchy based, for example, on education is fair, we must keep in mind how much access to elite schools depends on legacy and wealth
(just think of the actor Felicity Huffman and the other college admission cheating scandal defendants).

If one looks, for example, at hierarchies that have governed highly profitable financial institutions, law firms, and other businesses, one will notice that women and people of color were, for a very long time, inadequately represented, particularly in the top echelons. While
much of this was due in part to a dearth of female, Black, and Hispanic candidates, that was itself due to socioeconomic hierarchies that impeded such individuals from applying to and attending top schools. The situation also has much to do with the nature of hierarchies, insofar as those at the top tend to promote those who are like them – i.e., historically White heterosexual men. Fortunately, the last few decades have seen laudable efforts at improving the situation, though the hierarchies still reflect an imbalance.

To the extent that a business’s hierarchy reflects hierarchies in the larger society in which it operates, that business’s hierarchy serves to reinforce such larger hierarchies. (What I am referring to here, for example, is the unsurprising observation that clerical staff will largely be
drawn from a certain segment of society, while senior executives will tend to be drawn from a higher one.) In such a case, the corporate hierarchy is perpetuating what may be an unjust socioeconomic hierarchy governing the larger society, and equity and justice dictate that we need to devise ways to inject flexibility and mobility into that corporate hierarchy.

Turning to hierarchies in schools, these can be especially pernicious, as they undoubtedly contribute to the mental health problems among students that have become increasingly prevalent. Students are acutely aware of their school’s social hierarchy and their place in it.
Being unattractive or from a poorer family will land a child on the lower rungs of the school hierarchy, damaging their self-esteem and inviting depression and bullying. And among those at the top, the hierarchy fosters narcissism and entitlement. It also conditions children to assume
that such hierarchies are natural and good, leading them to create and perpetuate unjust and pointless hierarchies elsewhere later in their life.

Clearly, such hierarchies are harmful to both those students at the top and those at the bottom, but of course especially the latter and in different ways. I consider it urgent that schools and parents undertake to do what they can to dismantle such hierarchies. One way is to include lessons questioning hierarchy in school curricula, teaching students to view hierarchies through the eyes of those on the lower rungs of the social and economic ladder. Such lessons will undoubtedly need to be carefully designed, and some serious consciousness-raising on the part of parents of children at the top of the school hierarchy may need to be undertaken, as they are likely to object to and impede such efforts.

One may point to the military as an institution where a strict hierarchy is needed in order for it to accomplish its mission. After all, without a rigid hierarchy, won’t an army descend into chaos with disastrous ramifications for the country it is supposed to be defending? That certainly
could be the case, but one need only look at the Israeli army to see a highly effective military that functions well with relatively little hierarchy compared to the militaries of other countries. Of course, it may be the case that the Israeli model’s success is limited to the battlefield conditions in which it primarily operates (e.g., small territory, rocky and hilly terrain).

Government bureaucracies are another example of an institution where very structured hierarchies prevail. Although the public sector has more than its fair share of dysfunctional hierarchies, many public sector bureaucracies function quite effectively. I can say from experience that the U.S. State Department is a relatively lean bureaucracy that operates rather effectively (I have long said that the taxpayers are getting their money’s worth out of that bureaucracy). Perhaps the fact that the State Department is a relatively small cabinet-level department forces it to organize itself in a relatively rational and efficient way. At the same time, we have all encountered bureaucratic nightmares so frustrating that we want to bang our heads against the wall, and even the most efficient government bureaucracies experience hiccups or even breakdowns from time to time.

Sometimes hierarchy resides very close to home. When I was young, we lived in “luxury” high rises that had doormen and other staff, and we employed non-live-in housekeepers and nannies. Given my young age, these individuals would of course call me by my first name, and that continued even as I became an adult. (My parents were addressed with the honorifics “Mr.” or “Mrs.”) When I was old enough to have my own apartment, the staff in those buildings addressed me by my honorific, just as my parents had been when I was younger. On the other
hand, I was expected to call the staff by their first names. I wondered, why should I be entitled to address the staff by their first names, while they had to address me by my more formal honorific?

Although this may strike one as a relatively insignificant distinction, the situation smacked of what was a troubling hierarchy for me. Given my discomfort with this state of affairs, I have always requested that staff and domestic help also address me by my first name. Some happily oblige, while others do so uncomfortably or not at all. I do recall one doorman who continued to address me as “Mr.,” even after I had asked him to call me by my first name. One day, I corrected him and reminded him that I preferred that he call me by my first name, just as I called him by his first name. He apologized and just said that he could not bring himself to do it. Saddened me that he had so internalized the customs (or rules) of the socioeconomic hierarchy, that he was unable to address me by my first name, even though I was several decades his junior.

The last hierarchy I will mention derives from one of my favorite Dr. Seuss books, The Sneetches and Other Stories, which tells the tale of a society of bird-like creatures, some of whom had stars on their bellies, while others did not. Although aside from this difference all
Sneetches were basically the same, having a star was a source of privilege and prestige, while those without stars were discriminated against and looked down upon. One day, an entrepreneur came to town with a machine that, for a price, could put stars on the bellies of those Sneetches who lacked one, and soon all Sneetches had stars on their bellies. The Sneetches who originally had stars were deeply troubled that the source of their privilege had been rendered meaningless, since all Sneetches now had stars. The entrepreneur then introduced a machine that could, again for a price, remove stars from the Sneetches’ bellies, and the Sneetches who originally had stars
flocked to him to have their stars removed in the hope of restoring their status and privilege. The Sneetches who still had stars then proceeded to have their stars removed, and this process continued seriatim until nobody knew who originally had a star on their belly and who did not (and the Sneetches were left bankrupt). I can think of no better story to depict the folly of an irrational and oppressive hierarchy in such a clear manner as this, but the Sneetches at least learned their lesson. Will we?

Hierarchies are undoubtedly necessary in our complex world. As the discussion above reveals, some hierarchies are intentionally designed and implemented, and then may grow or change over time, while others emerge or develop in a more organic manner. But we must regard all of them with a critical eye and recognize that we are not necessarily stuck with only a choice between total anarchy and unjust rigidity. Where a hierarchy is unnecessary and serves only to cement in a particular order, or where a hierarchy serves to perpetuate oppression of certain individuals or groups, we must call it out for what it is and work to dismantle it, or at the very least reform it. Given the stakes that those at the top have in such hierarchies, such a project is not for the faint of heart. But it is a crucial part of the difficult work of building a just and equitable society.